Friday, September 22, 2023

Iran Update, September 22, 2023

 Ashka Jhaveri, Andie Parry, Johanna Moore and Brian Carter

The Iran Update provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. It also covers events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more on developments and in Iran and the region, see our interactive map of Iran and the Middle East.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander supervised a joint Iranian-Syrian military exercise in Syria on September 21, possibly to advance the campaign to expel US forces from Syria and reassert bilateral military relations.
  2. The tribal clashes with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have evolved into an insurgency, which likely will facilitate Iran’s efforts to establish a grassroots resistance to expel US forces from Syria.
  3. A coalition of small Iraqi independent political parties called on the United Nations to prevent tampering in the 2023 Iraqi provincial elections.

Iranian Activities in the Levant

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander supervised a joint Iranian-Syrian military exercise in Syria on September 21, possibly to advance Iran’s campaign to expel US forces from Syria and reassert military relations with the Syrian regime.[1] Iranian state media outlet Tasnim released images that show soldiers in unmarked uniforms, which suggests that some of the drill participants belonged to Iranian-backed proxy militias. Iranian media did not specify where the exercise took place, but Iran has recently centered its deployments and military development projects around eastern Syria.[2]  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani supervised artillery and heavy weaponry exercises with Lebanese Hezbollah near the Syrian-Iraqi border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.[3] The Iranian media’s publicization of the exercise included a statement from Ghaani that “the United States is the main root of corruption, chaos, terrorism, and strife in Syria, the region, and the world.”

  • An Axis of Resistance Telegram channel stated that this is the first time Iran has published information about a joint military exercise between Syrian and Iran.[4] Iran and Syria announced plans to hold joint war games in January 2023.[5] Iran, Russia, and Syria have held joint exercises in eastern Syria since 2019 but have not publicized the exercises nor the Quds Force’s role in them.[6]
  • Iranian and Syrian media amplified the rumor that the United States was an imminent threat and would invade eastern Syria in July as part of its joint coercion campaign to expel US forces from Syria.[7] Iranian officials and Syrian media refuted the rumor in August and September.[8] This joint exercise demonstrates the coercive campaign is ongoing despite the rhetorical shift from the regimes.
  • President Bashar al Assad arrived in China on September 21 for a multiday visit to pursue bilateral economic ties.[9] Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian affirmed Iranian leaders’ intent to maintain a long-term military presence in Syria during a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on August 31.[10]

The tribal clashes with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have evolved into an insurgency, which likely will support Iran’s efforts to establish a grassroots resistance to expel US forces from Syria. The SDF and the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC) began fighting after the SDF arrested the DMC commander on August 27. The conflict rapidly expanded after August 30, as other tribes joined the fighting driven by long-running grievances against the SDF. Pro-regime forces attempted to prolong the conflict by deploying forces into SDF-controlled territory in early September.[11] The tribal insurgency is fracturing the US partner force in Syria which is consistent with the pro-regime effort to expel the United States from Syria.[12] Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime have attempted to create a hostile environment for US forces operating in Syria. Iranian-affiliated “sleeper” cells deployed to SDF-controlled territory to attack US positions and Russian aircraft have harassed US aircraft.

  • The tribal insurgency explicitly aims to expel the SDF from Deir ez Zor and establish a governance system led by tribal leaders. Tribal forces attacked SDF forces 17 times between September 6 and September 13, and 16 times between September 14 and September 18.[13]  Insurgent leader and Akidat Sheikh Ibrahim al Hifl announced on September 20 his intentions to create a tribal military command affiliated with an unspecified army and Arab tribes.[14] It is not clear if Hifl is referring to the Syrian Arab Army or a separate entity. Pro-regime forces’ involvement in the insurgency would be a major inflection that risks prolonging the conflict.[15]
  • The SDF is responding to the tribal insurgency by arbitrarily detaining civilians, abusing locals during operations, and stealing local homes to create military positions.[16] The SDF withdrew on September 13 from several villages that were affected by the initial round of fighting, which enabled tribal insurgents to move freely and conduct attacks in SDF-held southern Deir ez Zor.[17] The SDF’s response will not successfully suppress the insurgency.[18] The steady rate of attacks indicates the SDF’s attempts to appease the tribes on September 7 by releasing prisoners has failed to deescalate the situation.[19]
  • The IRGC Quds Force is forming a tribal militia to strengthen the Arab tribe's control of SDF-controlled territory and fight SDF forces.[20] The IRGC appointed a former Syrian regime general with ties to tribal sheikhs to recruiting tribesmen from regime and SDF-controlled territory, according to a report from a UK-based opposition outlet on September 10.[21] Cultivating an anti-US grassroots resistance movement that conducts attacks on US forces is one component of Iran’s campaign.[22]

Iranian Activities in Iraq

A coalition of small Iraqi independent political parties called on the United Nations to prevent tampering in the 2023 Iraqi provincial elections.[23] The coalition claimed that the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has been taken over by “two influential parties” degrading the commission’s independence from political influence. The IHEC is Iraq’s independent body for planning and running national elections.[24] Local Iraqi journalists have accused the Shia Coordination Framework of pressuring the former head to resign to appoint the commission’s current head, Judge Abbas al Fatlawi.[25] The coalition’s statement is part of an emerging trend that highlights efforts by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Shia Coordination framework to influence the provincial elections.

  • The independent Iraqi news outlet Al Mada reported on September 4 that armed factions belonging to Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Ninewa Province are working to prevent political opposition from registering to run in the provincial elections.[26] Ninewa representative Mahma Khalil described Ninewa Province as being overrun by militias, foreign parties, and personal agendas, all of which are seeking to sway local elections.
  • Head of the al Fayha Federal Gathering party Karim al Shawak reported that one party candidate, Ammar Sarhan, was arrested on unspecified charges.[27] He suggested that a video clip of Sarhan criticizing the Adil Abdul-Mahdi administration during the 2019 protests prompted the arrest.
  • Federal Integrity Commission head and Iranian-backed Badr Organization affiliate Judge Haydar Hanoun announced on September 14 that his commission will audit candidates, their families, and their affiliates for corruption ahead of the elections.[28] ISW previously assessed that Iranian-backed political actors in Iraq could use this audit to disqualify political opponents from running for office under an amendment the Shia Coordination Framework passed in March 2023.[29]


[1] https://www dot

[2] https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/index.php/ar/news/2023/06/08/8771 ;  https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/index.php/ar/news/2023/05/31/8684 ; https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/09/13/9665



[5] https://www dot

[6] https://www.newarab dot com/News/2019/10/2/Syria-Russia-and-Iran-conduct-first-joint-military-exercise

[7] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/media/1402/04/25/2926706/%D8%A2%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B4-%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D9%88-%D9%87%D9%85-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B4-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%A2%D8%AA%D8%B4-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87  

[8] https://al-vefagh dot net/72380/%d9%84%d8%a7%d9%8a%d9%85%d9%83%d9%86-%d9%84%d8%a3%d8%ad%d8%af-%d8%a3%d9%86-%d9%8a%d8%ba%d9%84%d9%82-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%ad%d8%af%d9%88%d8%af-%d9%88%d8%b7%d8%b1%d9%82-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%86%d9%82%d9%84-%d8%a8/ ; https://alwatan dot sy/archives/357605  


[10] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85216626



[13] Authors’ database of significant activity (SIGACT) in Deir ez Zor. Sources available on request.

[14] https://www.enabbaladi (dot) net/archives/660750






[20] https://deirezzor24 (dot) net/en/iran-is-seeking-to-establish-a-tribal-militia-in-deir-ezzor/; https://israel-alma (dot) org/2023/09/15/iran-is-taking-advantage-of-the-fighting-in-eastern-syrias-deir-ez-zur-to-improve-positions-toward-aleppo/



[23] https://almadapaper dot net/view.php?cat=298873


[25] ;

[26] https://almadapaper dot net/view.php?cat=298165

[27] https://almadapaper dot net/view.php?cat=298540

[28] https://www dot